JM Williams

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Thoughts on Classic Narrators


I’ve been working my way through H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, and was struck by a random thought. The narrative structure of the book is very similar to other contemporary works.

This is actually my first time with this particular work. I am also surprised by the shortness of it. I had been under the impression that The Time Machine was a novel, but it is in fact a novella. Only around 33,000 words depending on the source. Wells’s The War of the Worlds is only around 46,000 words. Both details have me thinking about the current demand of publishers of 80k or more words for fantasy and sci-fi books. Where does that come from? But that’s a question for another time.

For this post, I am thinking about the narrators used in The Time Machine and many of its contemporary works. The narrator takes the form of a side character who is witnessing the actions of the main character of the story. This is the same narrator used by Arthur Conan Doyle in the Sherlock Holmes stories, in the form of John Watson. Though I haven’t read it, I believe it is the same in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, accounts of the famous vampire conveyed by a third party. The same is true for Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, though you might not notice it as most of that novel is told in first-person. But this is a first-person account being heard and relayed by the narrator, who is not himself, the person who traveled back in time.

The Time Machine is similar to Twain’s work in that–at least what I have gone through so far–the narrator is not part of the actual story. He is simply a witness that relays this incredible story to us. It seems to me that classic fiction–for popular fiction for wide audiences emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries, as did the modern form of the novel–demanded very straight-forward, realistic narrators. That old writing question, that is now unnecessary but is often still asked, “How is this account delivered to the reader?,” is a critical component of classic novels. So you tend to find a lot of discovered letters, and third-party witness type stories.

We have grown a lot since that time. Now we feel no need to explain where a third-person account comes from, nor how the narrator knows what it knows. Though many would argue with me, I would even go as far to say that first-person narrators do not need to be accounted for. I have indeed written on the topic before.

It quite interesting to look back and see, what appears to be, much more rigidity than what we have in modern writing. There’s nothing wrong with having realistic narrators, especially if you’re writing historical fiction. I have even though of writing a “discovered letters” story myself. But it is not necessary. We have so many more narrative tools than they did back then.

I am having a lot of fun with The Time Machine, much more than with the last page of IT, which is becoming a major drag. Maybe I should get back to it, eh?

Thanks for reading.


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8 Responses to Thoughts on Classic Narrators

  1. I really enjoyed The Time Machine and the unique perspective of the narrator. I was also surprised by how short it was and yet it definitely left an impression of me, especially all the creatures and the world he conveys. A good read.

    • JM Williams

      Yes, I am liking it so far. But I find the narrative format a bit archaic. So we have a character who is listening to the time traveler tell his story. So like Twain, the story is told mostly in the traveler’s first person POV. But we get stuck in that for a long time. I think in modern writing we’d expect the narration to draw back put from time to time, to have the real narrator comment on the traveler’s behavior and mannerisms as he said certain things, before diving back into the story. As is, it’s more of a framing device than a narrarive style.

  2. Funnily enough, I’m currently writing a novel based around a first-person account, and when I submitted my prologue for discussion, a few comments stated that it (the prologue) wasn’t necessary at all, as the prologue is a framing device to explain who is telling the story and why. These critique partners felt it was unneeded and that I should just start on page 1, echoing your point that nowadays there isn’t always any compunction to explain why the story is first-person, let alone third. It is an interesting development.

    • JM Williams

      I would probably agree with your beta readers. If the character used in the framing narrative is not essential to the story, I’d cut. But if the overall work is intended to show some affect of change in this first character, then keep it. If the latter case, I might even put the framing narrative in chapter 1 innstead of a prologue.

      • For me the framing is absolutely essential as it introduces the narrator, and in fact strongly influences the way in which the narrative unfolds and helps to shape the (unreliable) content of the narrative and perhaps the reader experience/expectations as they progress through the story. So I understood why the suggestion to be rid of the prologue was made, but for me, this is a formal experiment I intend to see all the way through, and think will reap rewards in terms of enriching the story. If nothing else, I’ll learn a few new things to do, and to avoid! And of course, once the tale is done in this draft, I’d still have the choice to kick away the framing device and simply build it into the narrative instead during revision, but I’m going for the old school approach this time out.

        • Sounds like you’ve justified the move for yourself, which is all that matters in the end. So, you’ll have the frame come back at the end of the story, back to the core narrator again? Like bookends?

          • Yes, the story is circular, the tale he tells describes how he got (or suspects he got) to be in the framing circumstance in the first place. At the end the frame is reintroduced, and a reaction to his tale indicated. Hopefully it will work!

          • Sounds promising! Hope to read it someday. 😀

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